This must be one of the most spectacular day hikes in the Cordillera Blanca.
We met up with another couple at the Lazy Dog Inn, Arun from Michigan, USA and Yola from Florence, Italy and so, rather go on an organised tour, we shared a taxi to take us to the trailhead, wait for us and take us back. Boring for the driver, but excellent for us. A bargain at 300 Soles ($90 US) and less than the cost of getting into town and back to join a tour. An added bonus was that we “only” had to leave at 5.15am
The drive there via Yungay took around 4 hours, much of which was on very rough dirt mountain roads. We stop briefly at the park HQ to pay our 10 soles entrance fee and then continue on, stopping only at the Laguna Chinancocha which is an incredibly beautiful turquoise blue.
A few kilometres further on we are finally dropped off to make our way down to the strangely named Cebollapampas (onion plains?). We walk through the campsite where the overnight trekkers were just packing up. Stepping over the array of camping gear, we set off on the first, deceptively easy, stretch of the trail meandering along the banks of a fast flowing glacier-fed stream in the Quebrada Demanda. Already we are astounded by the scenery surrounding us as we look up to the snow covered peaks of Chopicalqui (6354m), Huscarán Sur (6768m) and Norte (6655m).
After 3kms or so we start to climb up the rocky paths zigzagging up the mountain side. It is here that we (meaning me!) start to feel the altitude. Perhaps we should have spent a few more days acclimatising before this hike?
As we climb ever upwards on the other side of the valley we see a magnificent waterfall, which must be at 2-300m high. Our trail takes us around and above this waterfall and passes a small green lake full of strange yellow algae clouds. With more than a few rest stops to catch our breath, eventually we drop slightly down to a wide open meadow. To our great relief we have a couple of kilometres of reasonably flat terrain through which we stroll breathing relatively normally for a change . Surround by wild lupins and other wild flowers, it’s a really pretty place.
As we walked through the meadow we passed by some really strange looking cows, one striped like a tiger?? Coming to the end of the flat stretch we rest awhile by a large rock and have a drink and a banana to keep our energy levels up. Some other hikers start pointing behind us and laughing and we turn around to see a large cow poking its head over the rock and staring at us! Clearly after the bananas..
Rest over, we carry on to the base of the “steep” section we have to climb to get to the lake (as if the rest of the hike hasn’t been steep!). Looking up at this really steep section it is only now that I seriously begin to wonder whether I am going to make it! I start chewing some coca leaves I have brought from the Inn. They and Carolyn’s constant assurance that “it is not too much further” seem to help a bit, or maybe it is just in the mind.
The altitude is really getting to me as we climb up this stretch and we have to stop frequently. It is getting really hard to breathe in the thin air. The closer we get to the top the more everyone around us is stopping to catch their breath and ask those coming down “how much further?” A group of Irish girls tell us it is only another 15 mins! Those must have been Irish minutes – clearly longer than any other minutes!
Anyway to cut a very long and painful story short, we made it – 4600m above sea level. The feeling of elation was indescribable. The ache in our legs all too describable! A short walk along a flat path and we reach the famed Laguna 69 (one would think they could have thought of a more imaginative name!). An amazing blue, due we are told to a combination of minerals and algae. The glacier looms ominously high above the lake. By now the clouds have rolled in and the temperature has dropped dramatically. Despite this, some lunatic strips off to his underpants and jumps into the lake!
Eschewing a quick dip, we linger awhile and then head back down from whence we came. One would think that going back down would be easier and it is, at least on the lungs, but not on the knees, feet, back and legs. As tiredness sets in, it becomes easier to miss-step and twist and ankle, but eventually we make it. Never have I been so glad to see a beat up estate car ( station-wagon for the Americans).
It has taken us 6.5 hours to walk 16kms and ascend 700m from 3900m to 4600m and back again. Was it worth it? Absolutely!!